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Israel insists that foreign medical degree applicants make aliya



The Israeli government has changed its rules about foreign students coming to Israel to complete their medical degrees with a view to returning home.

To do full medical degrees in Israel now, one has to make aliya, and commit to living and working in Israel after attaining the degree.

The government has now barred foreign students from the English-speaking degrees at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Ben-Gurion Faculty of Health Sciences (BGU) in Beersheva, and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology’s Rappaport Faculty of Medicine in Haifa, unless they make aliya.

This follows the SA Jewish Report reporting in April 2022 that Telfed (the absorption organisation for South Africans in Israel) had launched a world first – a seven-year medical degree in English in Israel.

The offering was said to be a game changer for South African Jews who wanted to study medicine. They wouldn’t have to do community service, and the degree was highly subsidised. This is still the case, however, at the time, it was also noted that they could take their degree anywhere in the world, including returning to work as doctors in South Africa.

The first three years of the degree – the BSc pre-med at Ariel University – doesn’t require making aliya. The second part – four years of medical study in English at the Medical School of International Health at BGU will require aliya.

Telfed Chief Executive Dorron Kline explains how this change came about. “The ministry of education looked at the numbers, and saw that about 100 Israelis study medicine overseas every year because they can’t get into medicine in Israel – it’s difficult, there’s a lot of competition, and not many places.

“And then, about 100 or so foreign students come to study medicine at Israel’s international schools every year. So it doesn’t make sense that Israelis are leaving while these spaces are kept for foreigners. So, they came to a decision that all medical schools in Israel – whether they teach in Hebrew or English – can accept only Israeli citizens. They will still be taught in English. Obviously doing their degree in English is probably not Israelis’ first choice, but travelling overseas meant they would have done their degrees in other languages anyway.”

The move, which was approved by the Council for Higher Education, the education ministry, and the health ministry, is expected to increase the number of Israeli medical students by 130 each year, beginning in 2023.

“Israel is in the midst of a deep crisis in terms of medicine as a result of a number of factors, and it requires fundamental treatment in order to ensure that Israel’s population continues to receive good healthcare in the future,” said a spokesperson for the Council for Higher Education.

“There’s already a shortage of doctors, which is expected to get worse in light of the rise in life expectancy (and with it a rise in the elderly population), many doctors retiring, the revocation of recognition for medical degrees from several institutions in Europe, and the demand for residents to shorten their shifts, which will require more residents.

“This will help tackle Israel’s growing and expanding needs as part of our comprehensive programme to expand the number of medical students,” Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton said in a statement.

A Johannesburg Jewish student who asked not to be named told the SA Jewish Report that she hoped to do the degree and make aliya, so this wouldn’t have an impact on her plans. “That’s my dream – to make aliya and become an Israeli citizen. Now that it will become just for Israeli citizens, they may make the cost of the degree slightly cheaper. The one concern I have is it may make it more competitive.”

Kline agrees that costs will probably be lowered in light of the new law. Regarding competition, he says “time will tell”, but the entrance requirements haven’t changed. He points out that by the end of their pre-med, students will probably have such a good level of Hebrew, they could also apply to Hebrew speaking programmes.

As an organisation that encourages aliya, Telfed doesn’t view the change in a negative light. He says he hasn’t had any complaints from people considering the programme. The last time he spoke to Ariel University two weeks ago, it had four applicants from South Africa. The degree is due to start in September.

Regarding funding, nothing has changed. Normally, the pre-med at Ariel University is expensive, but Telfed managed to negotiate it down to 15 000 shekels (R76 550). “In addition, we have negotiated with the student authority [in the Israel ministry of absorption] that all tuition for the BSc will be paid for. So it’s a free degree,” says Kline.

“In addition, they will be able to apply for Telfed scholarships of up to 10 000 shekels (R51 033). Finally, the first year of the degree is also recognised by the Masa programme. So even if the student doesn’t make aliya, they can get a significant scholarship from Masa to cover their first year.”

The four-year medical degree at BGU usually costs $40 000 (R675 640) a year – out of reach for most families. “But Telfed has engaged with a generous donor who has dedicated a $1 million (R16.9 million) fund to help South African Jewish students to do this four-year section at BGU,” says Kline. The money has been set aside, but the details are still being finalised, which is why Telfed cannot name the donor at this stage.

Kline says this donor may also fund other Masters programmes in English at BGU. He says the donor is happy that applicants will make aliya, and that this change has “expanded more opportunities for scholarships and study options”.

Students can email for more information.

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